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Bulgaria grapples with Mideast refugee surge

EU's poorest member state is struggling to cope with an influx of mostly war-weary Syrian refugees.

Last updated: 19 Aug 2014 13:16
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In 2013, the EU's poorest member saw at least 11,500 refugees pour in from Turkey [Mariana Ionova/Al Jazeera]

Sofia, Bulgaria - Muslima Mohamad was six months into her pregnancy when her family was evicted from their rented apartment in a Sofia suburb. Since they couldn’t go anywhere else, the family of four wound up back in a Bulgarian refugee camp for the second time in a year.

Mohamad, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, came to Bulgaria 14-months ago with her husband Walat Ali and their two toddlers. After illegally entering the country through Turkey, the family spent three months in a refugee camp 30km from the border. 

"There is no work here, there is no way to earn our bread," Mohamad said as she sat under a tree in Voenna Rampa, a refugee camp on the fringe of Sofia. "Even when my husband finds work here and there for a few days, they give him 10 or 15 leva [$7-$10], which doesn't help much. If we had money, we wouldn't be here."

Mohamad’s family is one of many who have struggled to find their footing in Bulgaria since arriving in last year's unprecedented refugee wave. In 2013, the EU's poorest member saw at least 11,500 refugees pour in from Turkey, mostly Syrian Kurds hoping to reach Western Europe.

Children play at a refugee camp in the town of Harmanly, some 250km from the capital Sofia [EPA]

The influx caught authorities by surprise and overcrowded Bulgaria's refugee facilities, where reports of deplorable conditions - including a lack of electricity, running water and medical care - drew international condemnation.

Better conditions, but new challenges

Since then, conditions in Bulgaria's refugee camps have dramatically improved. The country spent about $9m - mostly EU funds - to renovate its facilities and increase capacity from 1,230 to nearly 6,000.

This year, the stream of refugees has decreased to a few hundred per month, and the processing of asylum claims has sped up. Once processed, the majority of refugees have gone on to Western Europe, leaving the camps about two-thirds empty.

For these people, Bulgaria is the place where in principle they will have to stay because they can't go anywhere else.

- Roland Francois-Weil, UNHCR

But for many others, hopes of leaving Bulgaria have been crushed by EU asylum regulations. Under European law, those granted full refugee status are free to travel within the EU for up to three months, a provision most use as an opportunity to move on to wealthier Western countries.

However, for those granted humanitarian protection, leaving Bulgaria is only possible with a visa - something most EU countries are hesitant to hand out to refugees. So far this year, Bulgaria has granted refugee status to 2,765 while 1,635 were granted humanitarian status, according to the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

As a result, Bulgaria faces a new challenge as it struggles to find a place for those who, like Mohamad, have received humanitarian status and must remain in the country. Currently, about 25 percent of the 2,144 refugees in state facilities are status holders unable to support themselves outside the system.

Faced with a bleak economy and language barriers, few are able to find steady jobs and secure housing. Other hurdles, such as the complex regulations that bar refugees from enrolling their children in Bulgarian schools if they don't speak the language, make their plight all the more difficult.

Roland Francois-Weil, a representative for UNHCR, said even if they want to stay, most refugees do not have the necessary support to build a life in Bulgaria.

"For these people, Bulgaria is the place where in principle they will have to stay because they can't go anywhere else," Francois-Weil said. "But many of them are still in the centres, living on the assistance that is provided to them by the state. This is not a solution."

But Bulgaria has yet to implement an effective strategy to address the issue. The country's previous integration programme, devised at a time when the number of refugees was still negligible, allocated $70,000 per year for language classes and vocational training.

The three-year programme ended last December and has not yet been replaced. In July, the government finally announced it had accepted a new national strategy but, shortly after, the administration resigned amid political and financial instability - before it could implement or finance the initiative. Now, as the country heads to early elections in October, the integration plan has been put on hold.

The long-term strategy

In the meantime, the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) has halted its integration activities, citing a lack of resources, but has agreed to keep accommodating vulnerable refugees, even after they receive status and exhaust their permitted stay. NGOs and UNHCR have also stepped in to provide access to basic language courses in the camps. But Francois-Weil noted these measures are not a sustainable replacement for an integration strategy. 

The majority have had the opportunity to find work. But they are not interested because they think, at any moment, they will leave for Europe.

- Vasil Varbanov, State Agency for Refugees

"What you really need is a robust integration programme to exist, to support people and to give them all the means to succeed," he said. "If you provide people with humanitarian status and they cannot go anywhere else, then there has to be something for them to be able to integrate properly."

Vasil Varbanov, vice chairman of SAR, said authorities recognise the need for a long-term plan, but he also noted many refugees resist integration. "The majority have had the opportunity to find work, but they are not interested because they think, at any moment, they will leave for Europe."

He also added the agency is doing its best, but little can be done without financing. "This is the biggest problem for us right now - integration," he said. "But we can't blame the country - the budgetary resources simply cannot handle that kind of pressure."

Meanwhile, the flow of refugees seems to be gaining momentum in recent months, despite the country's intensified border measures and a controversial new fence that cost it $6.5m. In the last three months, the number of people illegally entering Bulgaria has steadily climbed and, in July, it reached 501. The country is also receiving more requests for asylum: last month, applications jumped by 41 percent, reaching 911.

To further complicate the situation, authorities are bracing for the possibility that some 4,000 refugees could be returned from Western European countries such as Germany, Sweden and France. So far this year, only 78 refugees have been returned, but more could be sent back.

"Because they were registered here, we have to accommodate them in the centres again," Varbanov told Al Jazeera. "They will fill our capacity. And for the new arrivals - what do we do?"

As for Mohamad, she is among those hoping that European asylum laws will change and her family will be allowed to leave for Germany.

"We left Syria for our children," she said. "Bulgaria is a nice country but it's not rich - they don't have the ability to help us. If we could find work, support ourselves, send our children to school, we would stay. But like this, what is their future here?"

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Al Jazeera
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